Last week a news brief highlighting the recent demolition of the Norton Paper Mill Dam in Colchester, Conn., caught my eye for exactly the wrong reason — cheese.
For an eight-month period of my life, I drove by the mill on my way to work almost every day. And I noticed it every single time. Not just because the structure blocked a blind curve directly before the left-hand turn I needed to take to reach Cato Corner Farm, a small dairy that produces raw milk cheeses where I worked at the time; but because it was alluringly derelict: a brick edifice with a few shattered glass panes suspended in gaping windows, looming on the banks of the Jeremy River.
The Norton Paper Mill Dam was a vestige of a bygone era, the kind of place that both evokes the past and confirms our distance from it. After hearing the news, I had to go back to see for myself that the mill and dam really were gone. Also, I had a hankering for some cheese.
Nostalgia and cheese aside, there is legitimate reason to take note of the Norton Mill Dam removal project: it is a major triumph for conservation. The removal of the dam in early November opened 17 miles of upstream habitat in the Jeremy River for migratory fish species such as Atlantic salmon, river herring, American eel, and Eastern brook trout.
If 17 miles doesn’t sound like much to you, consider this: a typical dam removal in Connecticut opens up about one-and-a-half miles of upstream habitat.
“It is huge,” said Sally Harold, Director of River Restoration and Fish Passage for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Connecticut, as we strolled past the rubble toward the riverbank to admire the now free-flowing water. “We can confidently say that there are more than 4,000 dams in about 5,800 miles of perennial streams in Connecticut, so getting 17 miles open in a state that is so heavily dammed is pretty awesome.”
While these dams are not the hulking structures one might associate with the word “dam”, Harold explained, “for some of the species we care about in Connecticut, these old mill-pond dams or grist-mill dams are as much of a barrier as the Hoover Dam would be.”
She pointed out that for a fish like river herring that can’t jump any higher than six inches, a 3-foot dam might as well be a 60-foot dam.
Still, the Norton Mill Dam is the biggest dam removed in Connecticut to date. Nearly 20-feet high, it was insurmountable to any fish that would have attempted to migrate up the Jeremy River. It was also a towering historical icon for the community of Colchester. The last owner of the property, Nan Norton Wasniewski, was a descendant of the first owner, who built the original dam just upstream in the early 1700s. In its heyday, the mill was the epicenter of the Westchester section of the town, a small village of farmers and mill workers, some of whom were one in the same.
“A lot people who had farms nearby would come and work a shift at the mill — that was how these small mills were sustained,” Harold said. “It was important for everyone in the community, because they all had a part in what was going on here.”
The last industry to operate at the site was a paper mill that produced something called a “shoe counter”, which provides the heel structure in shoes. The rise of plastic brought that industry down in the 1960s, and although a few small businesses occupied the mill building in the following decades, it was no longer the beating heart at the center of the community. The village of Westchester became just a stretch of road where people would drive too fast on their way between Route 2 and someplace else.
Until now. The removal of the dam signals a turning point for the community, and a way to showcase how much it has to offer specifically because it is off the beaten path.
“I live in Fairfield, Conn. — about an hour outside New York City along the coast — and you can’t go anywhere on a river in that area without seeing houses,” said Harold, “On the Jeremy, you could canoe for an hour without seeing a single house.”
She explained that the Jeremy River is part of the Salmon River watershed, which is more than 60 percent forested. “It’s a really high quality watershed because there is so much undeveloped land, and there is low impervious surface where it is developed because the town center is small, and doesn’t have any big commercial districts.”
In that light, the site has the potential to revive and redefine the community by opening a gateway to recreational opportunities, such as paddling and fishing, as well as to upstream habitat.
For the Norton family, it also represents an opportunity to leave a positive, lasting legacy in a community that it helped shape over the course of three centuries. After considering the results of an alternatives assessment conducted by TNC showing how the area would look if the family were to pursue a number of different options — including doing nothing at all — Nan Norton Wasniewski was able to see a new role for her family’s property in Colchester’s future.
In December of 2013, she made the decision to remove the dam, and TNC applied for and received funding as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Sandy resiliency project to take it down in cooperation with the town. This spring Wasniewski officially transferred the property to the town for $1 to build a public park in her family’s name.
The icing on the cake for both the Nortons and the community is that the demolition of the mill has uncovered new layers of history at the site — beneath the concrete dating to the 1930s they found a stone dam from the 1870s, with a timber crib section under part of it, the wooden beams preserved underwater for nearly 200 years. Exploring upstream they identified remnants of the 1726 dam.
“It reminds us what was here,” said Harold, adding that wherever possible and safe, artifacts from the mill will become features of the park. When complete, Norton Park will be a place that encourages visitors and residents alike to slow down on that stretch of road and savor a piece of local history, perhaps accompanied by a piece of local cheese. I’d recommend Jeremy River Cheddar.